05/01/2014 01:06 EDT | Updated 07/01/2014 05:59 EDT

Neskantaga First Nation raises alarm as suicides continue

It's ironic that in order to cover a story on the remote Neskantaga First Nation in Northern Ontario, I went to one of the ritziest hotels in downtown Toronto.

Peter Moonias, the chief of the Neskantaga First Nation says the choice of venue was deliberate. They knew that a press conference highlighting the crisis in his community would get more attention here. 

It’s easier to ignore the problems in a fly in community that we can’t see. But its harder to ignore the images.

- Visit CBC Aboriginal

The Neskantaga First Nation is a fly in community home to about four hundred people in northern Ontario.

Last year, they declared a state of emergency after 27 youth attempted and seven youth committed suicide within 12 months. But still the crisis remains. Since then, three more deaths of youth have rocked the community. 

Chief Peter Moonias lost his son to suicide just before the holidays last December. He spoke about his own loss as a father & grandfather but also as a leader in this troubled community. “The community needs to heal before decisions can be properly made on any development that we are asked to do right now. Neskantaga is wounded very badly. We have a call to action today to address the issues that we think can benefit our community and have our people live a positive life.”

As Moonias spoke about the suicides, the water, the housing issues in his community, a sideshow of photographs played in the background.

I listened to the Chief, and to Bob Rae and a host of other advocates who spoke on behalf of this troubled community but what stuck with me the most after I left were the images playing on that slide show.The images of the youth like Alyssa Moonias. Alyssa dreamed of becoming a photographer. Two weeks ago, she took her own life.

CBC interviewed Alyssa last year about an upcoming art show she was involved in.  

"It feels good, like they're helping me get my name out there, helping me to succeed and reach my goal to be a professional photographer," the younger Moonias said.

Her proud father said it's a big deal to hear his daughter talking about the future.

"She's been different in a good way, after I bought her the camera," he said. "It's like something saved her."

Chief Moonias says the suicide crisis is a direct result of the 'fourth world living conditions' in his community. 

“We have had no drinking water since 1995. We have diseases and skin rashes from the water... Our babies, our kids run around with sores.”

In addition to living without access to clean drinking water for almost two decades,  there's a lack of housing, mould, food security, lack of adequate health services.

Why don't they just leave?

As I tweeting from the press conference, someone replied, “Any person who is Aboriginal is free to choose to not use benefits or live on a reserve no?”

Dr. Judy Finlay is the co-chair of Mamow Sha-way-gi-kay-win: the North South Partnership for Children in Remote Northern Communities. The partnership represents the coming together of First Nation Chiefs, Elders, youth and community members living in 30 remote communities in north-western Ontario and individuals and voluntary organizations based in southern Ontario.She says she gets asked that question almost once a day.

“This is their home. This is their land. This is where they have their traditional practice. They have a spiritual connection. Why would they move? And even if they did move, where would they go and who would support them if they left again and who would support them. The issues are more fundamental than just ‘move and start over’. Far more fundamental than that.”

Wayne Moonias knows all about that. He’s a councillor of Neskantaga but six years ago he and his family had to make a tough decision to leave their community.

“My family had to be uprooted to Thunder Bay because our 16 year old daughter had a medical issue… We made a decision as a family that they needed access to proper care in an urban centre like Thunder Bay. My daughter has three doctors she has to see regularly in Thunder bay just to maintain [her health]. That was a difficult decision for our family to make.”

Moonias and his family return to Neskantaga every summer. He wishes that everyone in his community had access to the same services he does in Thunder Bay.

"In the community, there is a limited time that a pediatrician or doctor will come into the community and some families can’t uproot their kids to get the proper medical health and that’s another sad thing we are facing in our community."

Chief Moonias and his council are hoping this call to action will help address the water quality and begin work on getting a treatment centre in the community.